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ESPN, Bud Light Turn Ad Character Into New Rookie for NFL Draft

ESPN used its Thursday-night coverage of the NFL Draft to shine a light on an unorthodox candidate for gridiron stardom: the Bud Knight.

In a cutaway that looked more like a quick-hit player profile, ESPN ran what is known as a “two-box”or “double-box” screen that was really a commercial from Anheuser-Busch InBev. Host Trey Wingo told viewers his team of analysts would return after “a look at one of the most promising talents in this year’s draft class – from Bud Light.”

Viewers got all that and more. One box showed the Bud Knight, who made its first appearance during Bud Light Super Bowl ads  earlier this year, trying on hats from the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens. The other offered facts and stats on his faux college-football career. Did you know the character hails from Ye Olde University? Slayed five dragons this week? And “cuts through defenses (literally)”?

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The inventive commercial, tucked between picks by the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Chargers, spotlights new efforts by the big sports leagues and the TV networks that show their games to speed up the pace of programming for a generation of viewers trained by DVRs and services like Netflix not to have to sit through traditional ad breaks. How to keep the fans in the seats? By devising new formats that blur the lines between games and ads. ESPN also ran a similar split-screen ad during the evening featuring Courtyard by Marriott, the event’s presenting sponsor.

“I think that fans are savvy enough when they see this spot they’ll realize exactly what’s going on,” says Deidra Maddock, vice president of sports marketing at ESPN, in an interview. “Advertisers ask us to push the envelope, and there are times when we don’t push it as far as they would like, but I think we are in a nice middle ground here.”

The “double-box” format has gained traction among sports broadcasters in recent years, with the NFL and Major League Baseball both nodding towards using the concept. ESPN first tested it in 2005 during IndyCar telecasts, running side-by-side graphic boxes showing a commercial on one side and racing action on the other. Viewers knew they could still keep tabs on the race they tuned in to see in the first place. Others have used the concept, which has shown up on Fox Sports 1 and in broadcasts by Time Warner’s Turner Sports.  Fox in 2013 even tested the idea on “American Idol,” running ads from Coca-Cola, AT&T and Ford Motor while letting viewers get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the “Idol” set.

ESPN took things a step further Thursday night, however, filling both boxes with content tailored to the occasion. As viewers got a look at the Knight in action, a narrator told them the character was “a complete athlete, and a heck of a leader on the field,” while scenes from a past Bud Light ad began to roll. The character was also billed as “the perfect first-round draft pick for any team.” The Knight’s antics had been taped earlier in the day.

The leagues and networks ought to use the tactic carefully, suggests one sports-marketing expert. “While viewers may not be overly upset by the additional in-game intrusion, part of the reason may be that they have become somewhat desensitized to in-program advertising,” suggests David Carter, executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute. “So it is going to take far more creativity to entice viewers to absorb the messaging.”

Bud Light executives feel their Knight can carry the day. “We are always looking for new ways to engage with our consumers, so when the double box idea came across as an option, we figured we would test it out,” says Andy Goeler, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, in responses to questions provided via email. “There could be some risk of having the viewers’ attention split, but with an execution as over the top as this one with the Bud Knight, we don’t really see that happening. We are looking forward to seeing how this performs.”

ESPN was mindful of fans’ experience, says Maddock, making sure not to let the Knight cut in to proceedings too early – or interrupt the actual draft. They also made sure Wingo told fans they’d return to current action within 15 seconds. Because the network had tried the double boxes during “Monday Night Football” last season, she says, executives wanted to see if they could try something new and more unique that would still keep fans with the program. Viewers saw other advertisers woven into the broadcast as well: Marriott showed up in various chryons, while DXL Men’s Apparel appeared in graphics just as the new draft picks were interviewed. “Looking good,” read the captions beneath the new NFL entrants.

The Knight represents Bud Light’s latest effort to maintain momentum behind its “Dilly Dilly” campaign, in which medieval characters shout out the phrase in commercials for the popular beer. The Knight first appeared at the end of a trilogy of Bud Light ads in Super Bowl LII earlier in 2018. “The entire idea behind this campaign and characters are to insert them into moments of cultural significance in a fun, humorous way,” says Goeler. The Knight turned up, for instance, during Philadelphia’s Super Bowl parade.

ESPN may be eager to show off what it can do with an event like the NFL Draft. The National Football League this year allowed Fox to broadcast a version of the event as well – a simulcast of NFL Network’s coverage. Bud Light’s participation was secured well before the NFL’s plans for the event were known says Maddock.

Don’t expect to see a pile of “double-boxes” on ESPN. “We don’t want to do a lot of them,” says Maddock. “We want to keep them special.”  Chances are, however, that more sports outlets will opt for this kind of split screen to keep viewers from splitting from their game broadcasts.

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